Improving STUDENT RETENTION. A Whitepaper from The Learning House, Inc.

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1 Improving STUDENT RETENTION A Whitepaper from The Learning House, Inc. Rev. 9/2011

2 What is retention? Respected college administrator, educational consultant and professor Alan Seidman defines retention as student attainment of academic and/or personal goals. However, retention encompasses more than student persistence; it also indicates the success of an institution. Retention is a measure of an overall product. It essentially evaluates the quality and effectiveness of the education and student services that an institution provides, despite student challenges and obstacles. 2

3 Why is online student retention important? As smaller colleges and universities (particularly those under 5,000 FTE students) continue to offer fully online degree programs, they are becoming increasingly sophisticated in curriculum development and the creation of high-quality and well-designed online courses. While schools have made much progress in translating traditional courses to the online environment, many schools still struggle with training and supporting faculty members who teach in this medium and with efficiently translating student services ranging from enrollment management to financial aid to book purchases to advising (and everything in between) for online students. If schools do not institute more initiatives to train and support faculty in using technology and finessing online pedagogy, and if student services cannot adapt fast enough to serve the growing number of fully online or hybrid students, then student persistence ultimately suffers and institutional attrition rates climb. 3

4 Why is? retention a concern for me? Accountability Retention is a major policy issue and indicator of institutional effectiveness. In an accrediting environment that is increasingly demanding outcomes and results, educational institutions must effectively measure and remain accountable for retention data. Technological Trends The emergence of distance learning and alternative modes of delivery provide new opportunities and challenges for student attainment. Financial College costs keep rising, and students, parents and government officials worry that students face increasing debt burdens, limiting their career choices. Debt can certainly limit student success outcomes, especially if students do not persist and are saddled with loans but no degree. Students who drop out also cost the university thousands of dollars in recruiting and lost tuition revenue. Obligation to Student Colleges and universities live out their missions. This might include developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, prepping students for the workforce, creating tolerance for difference, or deepening students religious faith and life. Colleges and universities have an obligation to set reasonable expectations for success to fulfill their missions. Unhappy students mean reputation loss for the school, but worse is when education hurts or turns off students. 4

5 What are current online student retention rates? While retention is one of the most often researched subjects in higher education, institutions still debate about how to measure it and obtain accurate data. The antiquated measure of first-time students from fall start to fall start excludes most types of fully online students, who are often transfer, returning, nontraditional students. These students may begin their program at multiple start dates outside of the traditional fall start. Typical measurements do not account for the complexity of student progress. Additionally, numerous models exist for measuring traditional retention variables, including student satisfaction, student integration, self-motivation and academic preparedness; however, the typical profile of online students brings a new set of concerns and challenges, such as the added factors of distance, accelerated courses and technology. Measuring retention and persistence for fully online students is challenging but crucial, and multiple factors affect it. Estimates range from 20 percent to 50 percent attrition rate for online courses. 5

6 Why do students drop out? In May 2011, Noel Levitz surveyed representatives from 296 colleges and universities about their student retention practices. Respondents from 130 four-year private institutions, 66 four-year public institutions and 100 two-year public institutions found the following to be the biggest retention challenges within their institutions. Retention challenge Economy/finances/affordability 30.8 Collaboration/institutional buy-in issues 15.4 Academic preparation and motivation 14.3 Percent of colleges facing challenge While the above table contains data that institutions have reported, individual student satisfaction data tells a slightly different story. While online students may face similar completion obstacles as their traditional peers, most retention challenges tend to be related to the online classroom and lack of student services. Online Classroom For fully online students, the classroom is the community. As such, online students seem to be more aware of the following: Quality of instruction and classroom engagement Timeliness of feedback Faculty responsiveness to needs Student Services Student satisfaction extends beyond the classroom. Efficient and competent student services are paramount for students who are unable to visit a departmental office in person. Reliable class schedules and organization of academic information are essential for online student persistence. 6

7 How can I improve online student retention? The key to improving student retention and persistence is to focus on improvement at two levels: the institutional level and the student level. 1 2 Institutional Student levels 7

8 Improving retention at the 1 institutional level Step 1: Define the problem. Review the data What are the benchmarks with your peer institutions? What are your predictions and expectations? How can you improve the collection of retention data? Step 2: Review how your mission and culture relate to retention activities. What is distinctive about your university? Perhaps it is your: Connection to a particular religion or denomination, unique curriculum, or awardwinning faculty. Step 3: Think like a student. What campus services touch students? Make a flowchart. From admissions to graduation, chart every department or individual who touches the student. How does each rate on a customerfriendliness scale? Consider: Where can online student go to get accessible, timely information? How easy is the financial aid process? Keep in mind that, other than professors, the financial aid staff likely has the most contact with students throughout their collegiate tenure. Can online students easily set up a school account? How do online students register for courses? How helpful are your academic advisors? How often do they communicate with online students? 8

9 Improving retention at the 1 institutional level Step 4: Evaluate what initiatives are already in place. Are the following services working together to communicate the same messages? College 101 or Intro to Online Learning Academic advising Career services Student affairs Tutoring and academic services Counseling services Step 5: Organize and implement. Form a working group to implement retention efforts. This committed group should represent a cross section of campus, ranging from student affairs professionals to enrollment staff. However, online retention efforts should focus on creating an organizational culture that emphasizes student learning. Do not overlook the contributions of online faculty to reduce attrition rates. Determine what is manageable to implement and will have a high impact and what is more complicated to implement but will have a higher impact. Engage, experiment and continuously measure. Step 6: Evaluate. What initiatives had a high impact? What initiatives had a low impact? How can you improve the process? 9

10 Improving retention at the 2 student level Persistence means more than succeeding in the classroom; it involves reaching personal and educational goals. Success coaching has proven effective in helping students reach their educational goals. The Role of a Success Coach Success coaches provide intentional, consistent contact with students, acting as their academic advocate and resource. A success coach should: 1. Assess students profiles, including: Determine students commitment in terms of institutional, psychological, social, academic and financial needs. Determine students strengths and weaknesses. Determine students expectations as an online student. 2. Identify at-risk students at the earliest signs of retention obstacles and challenges. Success coaches should also alert the faculty and the retention network in this situation. 3. Provide continual support of students academic and professional goals by: Proactively communicating with students, keeping an eye out for early alerts and indications. Providing early intervention, implementing intrusive, proactive strategies. Helping students identify goals at the start of each term. Walking students through institutional processes and setup prior to the first course launch. Maintaining consistent communication with and about student services. Providing students with resources and continuous motivation. Problem solving challenges that students may face. Providing continual feedback. 10

11 References Culver, T. (2011) student retention practices at four-year and two-year institutions. Retrieved from Herbert, M. (2006). Staying the course: A study in online student satisfaction and retention. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 9(4). Heyman, E. (2010). Overcoming student retention issues in higher education online programs. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(4). Seidman, A. (2005). College student retention: Formula for student success. Westport, CT: Praeger. 11

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